Tuesday, September 23, 2008

DeBrief on Presenting an Academic Paper

After the sturm und drang of a summer spent developing the ideas for a paper on how Gertrude Stein’s so called children’s story To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays has many points of comparison with medieval literature and then bends back on itself with futuristic pointers, I can safely say, after delivery of said paper, that I am now prepared for serious public speaking.

What I learned from participating in the conference “Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900” is the following:

• Talking point slides summarizing the major ideas with a few well chosen examples is a far better way to present a paper than to read word for word.

Why? Better control over the limited time given, better chance to make eye contact with the audience, less nervousness about whether your syncopation (Stein’s term meaning the gap between a speaker/actor delivering her words and the audience actually understanding what has been delivered) is successful.

• Speaking at 8 am in the morning, especially on the second day of a conference, is not likely to bring many listeners to your audience.
However, speaking at an early hour took the pressure off—the audience members clearly wanted to hear what was being presented and had made the effort to show up. Also if you are a novice as I was in presenting my first academic paper, speaking the second day gave the advantage of scoping out how things worked. So for example, I knew that most of the presenters were reading their papers and that it was hard to follow the compression of ideas, especially if they were reading fast and did not enunciating well. Had these presenters really thought through what they wanted to convey? Could they summarize their ideas and speak without the tangle of words written on paper?

• Using a stop watch while you speak can help you determine whether you need to cut anything from the presentation in progress.

It should go without saying that a speaker has practiced her talk with her slides numerous times and has used a timer or a stop watch to track the minutes. Practice helps the speaker refine the slides and perfect the presentation.


What was particularly nice about this conference was that the Power Center at Duquesne University, the main venue for the conference, was a brand new, well-equipped facility with excellent audio-visual support. I was able to insert my memory stick into their computer and voila, my PDF file was accessible to the screen with a few keystrokes. I had taken my PowerPoint slides and converted them to the PDF format because my husband recommended that was a more stable file. However, he also recommended that I show up with laptop and the PowerPoint files as well as paper copy that could be presented from should all the high tech options fail.

When I saw the room where my panel, which included two other papers on Gertrude Stein, I was stunned. The room could have easily held 300 people and it had two screens unlike the other rooms nearby that had only one screen and probably held a maximum of 150 people. So then I started thinking that because my panel was the only panel devoted to Stein and this being a conference bearing reference to her long erotic poem Lifting Belly that the expectation was that everyone would show up. During the early evening receptions, many people expressed interest in coming to hear my paper but I can only assume now that was the polite thing to say.


My roommate told me that she thought this conference was unusually friendly and supportive to the participants. Her experience with larger conferences like the Modern Language Association (MLA) was that conference goers were more competitive, more likely to attack presenters, and presenters were often presenting to nearly empty halls. When I started speaking, six people were sitting in the audience and little by little more people filtered in. That apparently was a respectable showing according to some conference goers I spoke with.

My friend Judith McCombs who was recently a keynote speaker at a conference in Belgium said I should proactively contact people before I left for the conference to introduce myself. So I wrote a letter to Lynn Emanuel who wrote the well-known poem called “Inside Gertrude Stein.” My long-time Pittsburgh friend Michael Wurster who is a mover and shaker in that literary community said Lynn would be a good person to make aware of my presentation and she was speaking on the plenary panel that followed mine. Long story short, we had an engaged conversation after her session but that was the only contact I had with her. Life is full and so it goes. I also contacted the only other presenter not on my panel who had a mention of Stein in the title of her talk. We had immediate interaction by email and she said she would try to get to my panel, but she had already promised a friend to show up at her panel and as it turns out, the friend’s talk was in a different building on the Duquesne campus, making it impossible to slip into both sessions.

The third thing I did was create a newsletter to introduce myself. I handed The Skinny from the Steiny Road to participants at the reception. The newsletter contains short paragraphs on my participation in Lifting Belly High; my sojourn with NPR radio interview at Toad Hall, a new arts retreat in New Hampshire; and my mini book tour, which includes an upcoming program with arias from my Stein opera in New York City. It also listed my calendar of events and how to obtain copies of my books.


What did I get from going to this conference?

• With a neglected work, I broke new ground in the study of Gertrude Stein and increased my personal knowledge about this important Modernist.

• I learned new skills in giving a public talk which made preparation for a lecture I gave two days later at Catholic University from my book The Steiny Road to Operadom a piece of cake.

• I learned how to negotiate an academic conference.

• I got an opportunity to meet and speak with Guenko Guechev, the head of opera programs at Duquesne University about my opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On.

• I reconnected with the Pittsburgh literary community.

Would I do this again? Maybe. It’s hard to say and would clearly depend on what additional feedback I get on this paper as well as whether I had another topic in the future that I felt equally as passionate about. People who usually go to these conferences are required by their universities to write, present, and publish papers. While I enjoyed the community and events that gathered around topics that I found immensely interesting, my preparation was all consuming just as if I were writing a dissertation for a university degree. How much room does that leave for poetry?

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